On Feb.4, the U.S. Senate joined the House of Representatives in a bipartisan vote to approve re-authorization of the U.S. Farm Bill. Mississippi's entire congressional delegation supported the measure. As ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran played a particularly central role in securing passage of the bill and in ensuring that it contains provisions to help farmers conserve our state's natural resources.
The new Conservation Title of this bill is particularly important for Mississippi because of the opportunities it presents for farmers, especially those in the Mississippi Delta. It can also help to restore the health of the Gulf of Mexico.
For many years, the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill has provided voluntary incentives to help farmers, ranchers and forest land owners manage and protect our nation's precious soil and water. In the Mississippi Delta, the new bill will allow continuation of a highly successful program to restore very wet and flood prone farmland to bottomland hardwood forests that reduce downstream flooding, provide fish and wildlife habitat and, over the long run, produce valuable hardwood lumber.
The bill will also assist landowners in managing water on their land in ways that aid crop production, reduce flooding and soil and nutrient runoff, and further expand wildlife areas, particularly for migratory waterfowl. These programs have waiting lists for participation because, in the way they are administered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, they provide financial incentives for farmers to stay on the land and help to ensure the long-term productivity of Mississippi agriculture.
Reduce 'dead zones' in the Gulf
Similarly, with respect to the Gulf, the Farm Bill's Conservation Title will be used by farmers up the Mississippi River to employ new, more targeted measures to reduce the runoff of nutrients into the river which ultimately contribute to a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico where most fish and shellfish species cannot survive.
The same longstanding, cost-effective and voluntary programs that benefit farming in the Delta can be used in states like Iowa and Illinois, where the most nitrogen and phosphorous runoff originates.
With passage of the bill, the Natural Resource Conservation Service will also be able to set aside special funding for other measures to improve the health of the Gulf by restoration of coastal rivers, streams and wetlands and for measures to reduce local runoff of pollutants.
The Farm Bill of 2014 is authorized for five years -- so there is some assurance that conservation funding will be available over time. That will allow farmers and their communities to plan conservation well into the future.
And all this is done in an overall farm bill that actually reduces federal spending over the five-year period.
My organization, The Nature Conservancy, works closely with farmers and land owners in Mississippi, and in the Mississippi River basin to our north, to maintain agricultural production while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat and reducing the hazard of flooding. These goals can all be achieved together, and the Conservation Title in the new Farm Bill can help us get there.
Thanks to Mississippi's congressional delegation for their leadership in working to make this important measure a reality.
Alex Littlejohn is associate state director of the Mississippi chapter of The Nature Conservancy, 405 Briarwood Drive, Suite 101, Jackson, MS 39206. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.